'I Hope the FDO Has Learned Something...'
The following piece was submitted as a letter to the editors, and concerns the recent suicide of a Harvard freshman. After receiving the letter, The Crimson offered Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 and Dean of Freshman Henry C. Moses an opportunity to respond to comments concerning Harvard's interaction with the freshman. The officials declined the offer. (A news story related to the case appears on Page One.)
A friend of mine died Monday, January 6, 1986. He walked out the front door of his house, walked to a nearby field, and shot himself in the heart. He was only 18 and a freshman at Harvard. He was also the nicest guy in the world.
Sam was the last of nine children in his family to go to college; the first to come to Harvard. He came here to play football and to get the best education he could. His brothers teased him when he left in September, said he'd come back all uppity, but I'm sure they were proud of him. Sam couldn't be uppity. He wasn't that type of guy. He was too nice for one thing. His father once told him that he was even too nice to play football--"one has to be mean on the field," he said. Sam's reply was, "Dad, I can be mean during the game, I just can't be mean in real life." That was pretty accurate. Sam was lovable and caring and fun, and I thought he was the greatest.
Unfortunately, he got into trouble at Harvard just before Christmas and the people at the Freshman Dean's Office didn't like what he'd done. It happened in the Freshman Union one night during dinner. Seats were scarce and Sam was eating near a table that had a reserve sign on one end of it. Some of the people sitting there got up to leave, and newcomers to the dinning hall were looking for places to sit. Sam reacted by getting up, taking the reserve sign off the table, and setting it up on a nearby garbage can. As he explained to me later, he just didn't think it fair that empty seats were reserved when others needed them. It was a gut reaction...and Sam did it without thinking.
Unfortunately, it didn't really register that the group reserving the table was the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Students Association, and that they might not be pleased to see a hulking football player walk over and remove their sign. They immediately protested; one guy grabbed him, and a senior adviser demanded his bursar's card. Sam just stood there, bewildered and amazed at all the fuss. He didn't fight back, he didn't raise his voice, he didn't say anything obscene. He was just a small town kid reacting to what he perceived was an injustice in the seating system. His purpose was not to make a political statement against the GLSA. If it had been he certainly could have picked a different time and place. Tragically, what Sam didn't know at the time was that the GLSA had been harassed on many occasions at Harvard and wanted formal recognition of their grievances; and that this was no ordinary meeting, but one that had been arranged through the Freshman Dean's Office. To make matters worse, the Dean of Freshman had been eating there himself shortly before this happened.
How did the Freshman Dean's Office respond? According to Sam, they harassed him. It wasn't enough to call him in for a talk. His senior adviser questioned his motives and frightened him by talking about punishment possibilities, including expulsion. The Dean of Freshmen pushed him to the brink of tears. In Sam's eyes no one in the FDO ever gave him the benefit of the doubt, or even questioned that maybe he'd made an innocent blunder. Instead, they questioned his motives and analyzed him and made him feel very badly. Sam's willingness to apologize, and even his desire to send a letter of apology to the GLSA apparently had little impact. No one would say that Sam was unconcerned about the issue. The FDO knew he was tormented; he was there every day trying to explain himself, but it didn't seem to matter. The Dean said they couldn't take that into consideration, students are always upset in these cases.
The Dean of Freshmen told me that they did believe his intentions were good. "We all know Sam's a nice guy," he said. "But his intent doesn't matter. We judged him according to his action." When I asked exactly what Sam was guilty of he replied that he was rude and disruptive.
The motives of the FDO are unclear. They said they did what they felt was right. But it bothers me very much that an office full of people whose job it is to look after freshmen and understand them--should react as they did in this case. They acknowledged that they knew a lot about Sam. They knew that Sam's father died in an auto accident a year ago, and that Sam was extremely upset by this. They knew he couldn't tell his mother about his troubles because it would break her heart. They knew that he was a deeply religious and very moral young man, who was not in the habit of beating up on others. I believe they also knew that three of his brothers are graduates of military academies, and live according to a code of honor and duty. Yesterday the Dean said he didn't really think Sam was trying to make a statement against the GLSA, but that his behavior in the Union was nonetheless inappropriate.
So the FDO told Sam they were recommending that he be put on disciplinary probation (which leaves a permanent mark on one's record) and submitted this recommendation to the Ad Board. Two days before Sam left for Christmas the University sentenced him with probation. And sent him, a local hero from upstate New York, home in disgrace after his first semester at Harvard--for something he didn't really do.
Sam may have had other problems I don't know about. He probably did. But it was up to the FDO to find out about these, and to think about the consequences of their disciplinary action. I'm not saying that what Sam did in the Union was right. It wasn't. What I am saying is that Sam was one heck of a wonderful guy and in no way deserved the punishment that the FDO showered upon him. No one, guilty or not, deserved this kind of treatment the week before Christmas.
Sam can never be replaced, and a part of him shall always be out with me, reminding me of the fragility of life, and the need to look out for others. I hope the FDO has learned something from this, that Sam's life may not have gone to waste. The next time someone gets into trouble at Harvard, perhaps some administrator will take the time to get to know that person a little better, and think hard about his or her motives before passing judgement.
Laurie Burnham was Sam Burke's section leader in Science B-15, "Evolutionary Biology." She is a resident tutor in Lowell House.